Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

Frontrunner Friday or: How Late September Doesn’t Have an Oscar Frontrunner

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It’s the first day of fall and the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals have wrapped and by now a Best Picture frontrunner has usually emerged. But not this year. Things are more up in the air than they’ve been in years, a decade maybe. For a few months Dunkirk was the default frontrunner just as an early release, and a handful of traditional ‘Oscar bait’ qualities as well as Christopher Nolan’s best shot for a Director nomination. That held until the fall/winter movies started dropping trailers and then the premiered at festivals. Dunkirk is still doing well at #2 but it’s festival releases like The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Call Me By Your Name and Darkest Hour that are all pushing for frontrunner status.

At the moment The Shape of Water holds that crown, making a big splash at Venice where it picked up the top prize, the Golden Lion, then a very successful Telluride play. Darkest Hour debuted at Telluride and gave people what they already knew (or at least we did), the frontrunner for Best Actor in Gary Oldman’s vivid and stunning transformation into Winston Churchill.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight)


But then a sneak attack came to Toronto in the form of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film had already won the screenplay prize at Venice but then shocked everyone by grabbing the TIFF People’s Choice Award over formidable (and more predicted) competition. Looking at history and stats a bit (because, yes, sometimes stats still matter) this is a much more substantial win than The Shape of Water‘s Golden Lion. That prize has only ever resulted in a Best Picture nomination twice (Atlantic City and Brokeback Mountain) but the People’s Choice Award has not only given us BP nominees like La La Land, Silver Linings Playbook, Precious, The Imitation Game and Room it’s given us Best Picture Oscar winners like Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave. This took a film, which felt pretty good for Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and catapulted it over multiple contenders to land in the top 5. In fact, just a few weeks ago as the Gold Rush Gang’s official Oscar predictions for September went up the film was at #13. It’s now at #4.

READ: 5 Reasons why Three Billboards’ People Choice Award Win at TIFF is a Big Deal

This has to be great news for Fox Searchlight. After last year’s collapse of their main Oscar pony The Birth of a Nation, the Oscar-winning studio was looking for a comeback and they more than have it this year. Not only do they have The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, they also have a player in Battle of the Sexes with Oscar winner Emma Stone and Oscar nominee Steve Carell. Although the Gold Rush Gang isn’t looking at the film as a top Best Picture player, some other pundits are, namely Sasha Stone of Awardsdaily. She’s pretty high on the film’s subject, the infamous male v female 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, being a strong parable to everything from the recent Presidential election to the misogynistic fallout since. It’s a fair prediction as the Academy, with its 1300+ new members in the last two years, could tip the balance to more socially conscious films rather than traditional Oscar bait biopics. Interestingly, this kind of hits both and could prove to be a player.

A24 is another studio that should be in a good place right now. The current Best Picture winning studio, hot off Moonlight’s win last February, the slick, indie studio has a huge output this year, some geared towards the awards circuit, some not. For the longest time we were high on Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete being their main horse but after months and months of no stills, no word, no release (especially as other A24 films got those) the film was finally shifted to 2018. A large part of that was because their slate started filling up, including a summer pickup of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, starring Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan. Giving it a prime early November release and a Telluride debut, Lady Bird quickly became the belle of the festival ball and could be the studio’s main push now. They also have The Florida Project, which they picked up at Cannes, skipped Telluride and then hit Toronto. Both films are going to be strong players in the acting and screenplay categories and are both definitely players in the Best Picture race.

The Early Festival and Theatrical Release: Strength or Curse?

Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics)


Call Me By Your Name debuted at Sundance way back in January in the middle of the last Oscar race and has had to sustain buzz and minimal exposure for months. It finally relaunched at Toronto with great success and reviews, a fierce social media game from Armie Hammer and maintains top 5 status with the Gold Rush Gang. Another Sundance hit, Mudbound, is hanging on but just barely. While CMBYN has Sony Pictures Classics behind it, Mudbound is a Netflix pickup and even with a choice November 17 release date, the streaming studio is holding onto its own day/date release strategy. This makes the film tough to predict. Netflix wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want the Oscar nominations; they hired the two best consultants in the business – Lisa Taback and Cynthia Swartz – so they’re not kidding around. But it’s clear that Netflix isn’t going to bend to Hollywood’s wishes and subscribe to how Amazon does it, they want Hollywood to bend to them. It remains to be seen if a major Netflix release can earn Oscar nominations outside of the documentary category and this year will be a good test. Get Out also came out very early in the year (February) but as a financial and social phenomenon we think the film is still a major Best Picture player where many other pundits aren’t even considering it.

Falling Fast

Downsizing (Paramount Pictures)


Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne debuted his latest film, Downsizing, a $70M semi-sci-fi gamble about humans shrinking themselves to help combat the crisis of climate change, at Venice, to some respectable reviews. Most thought the film would then get a better reception on Payne’s home turf at a festival where he’s beloved, Telluride. But that didn’t happen. The response there was worse than Venice, mainly for its treatment of Hong Chau’s immigrant character. After a handful of very mixed test screenings earlier this year, the film had been heavily tinkered with before its debut but Chau’s character being problematic was always going to be a factor. The studio’s been trying to get ahead of the controversy by getting Chau out and about but it may be too late. Roman J. Israel, Esq., from Oscar nominee Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and starring two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington seemed prime for an awards grab but reviews from Toronto have all but sunk the film and its awards chances. Wonderstruck, from Todd Haynes and starring Oscar winner Julianne Moore, is a sweet and charming film but every festival response so far has been quiet and respectful but not enough to keep it in the awards conversation. At least as of now. The New York Film Festival, where the film is the Centerpiece, is the last chance to change that.

Yet to Be Seen

The Post (20th Century Fox)


Next up is the ‘good on paper’ list. That includes the #3 film, The Post. The Steven Spielberg-directed, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks-starrer about The Washington Post printing the Pentagon Papers is as seriously baity as you could possibly get. It ticks every possible box for old school Oscar films. But unseen, and with a late December release, it can only remain a mystery. It’s topical to an alarming degree with the current political climate but will that be enough? Enough to break the December curse? Last Flag Flying will hit the New York Film Festival next week as the opening film so that will give us the first look there. Same goes for Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, the festival closer. Oscar nominee Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is just about to debut but it feels more like a below the line film in terms of nominations. It could surprise though. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (or whatever it’s eventually going to be called) continues to elude. Not a single official still, much less a trailer or any fanfare for the Focus Features release. The studio already has Victoria and Abdul opening this weekend and Darkest Hour as its main push so why not move this out to next Spring? Ridley Scott’s Getty kidnapping caper All the Money in the World is furiously trying to reach the post-production finish but already has a trailer and a slot as AFI Fest’s closing night film. That’s a movie that could surprise and turn up the heat on some of these fall releases. The Greatest Showman has been on quite a few pundits’ lists (as well as its star Hugh Jackman) and it’s gone back and forth with us (usually lower tier) and we’re just not sure what to make of it. It’s got a some Oscar nominated and winning talent behind it (the La La Land songwriting team, for example) but it’s a Christmas release so it’s going to take some real reviews (and box office) for it to climb up to the awards trapeze rope.

This is where things stand as of Friday, September 22, 2017 according to the Gold Rush Gang. Keep up with our predictions up to the minute right here.

1 The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight – 12/8)
2 Dunkirk (Warner Bros – 7/21)
3 The Post (20th Century Fox – 12/22)
4 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight – 11/10)
5 Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics – 11/24)
6 Darkest Hour (Focus Features – 11/22)
7 Get Out (Universal – 2/24)
8 Last Flag Flying (Amazon/Lionsgate – 11/3)
9 The Florida Project (A24 – 10/6)
10 Mudbound (Netflix – 11/17)
11 Lady Bird (A24 – 11/10)
11 The Big Sick (Amazon/Lionsgate – 6/23)
13 Phantom Thread (Focus Features – 12/25)
14 Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros – 10/6)
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